Here’s how to know who is elected president before networks tell you
In this document, I will try to make you an intelligent consumer of election night data. All sorts of “facts” are thrown around on election night. Many are to fill airtime when there really is nothing to say. Print this out and follow accordingly. My advice:
Ignore completely the results in 37 states plus DC. There is NO chance these 38 will vote other than as predicted. (If any of these go the other way, it is catastrophic for the losing candidate and the election is probably over). I’ll list these states below.
Pay minimal attention early reported vote totals. I know this sounds counterintuitive. Day of election voters, however, will be heavily Trump; early (mail in) voters will be heavily Biden. If a state has an extremely close total after these are counted, the “provisional” ballots will be largely Democratic.
Since you will not know the exact proportion of early and day of election voters in each, early vote tallies alone will not be meaningful. And “percent of precincts reporting” may or may not include mailed in votes (this will vary by state).
- Example: AZ counts early votes in advance, MI is not allowed to touch these until election day, so
- Early totals will likely show a Trump early lead in MI and a Biden early lead in AZ.
- Both of these will tell us little about who will win the respective states. The reverse, however, an early Trump lead in AZ or a Biden lead in MI would be meaningful).
Wait for networks’ calls on states and trust them. Network analysts know more than vote totals, like the number of day-of-election and early voters in each state and how many of each are counted. You will not. But their calls will be conservative. They do not want to be wrong. Trust those calls, more than reported vote totals. They have a lot of data that they do not tell you about and some pretty good quantitative experts to sort through it. I know many of them and trust them.
What will we know early: FL GA NC OH; AZ and TX a bit later. A Biden victory in either FL or TX would be game over. A Biden victory in AZ GA or NC would put the Trump prospects on life support with NO room to lose another close state.
(NOTE: ME and NE award one electoral vote for the winner of that congressional district. NE2 is currently “lean Biden”; ME2 is currently a tossup. In a close election they could come into play.)
Individual state analysis
Biden appears to be doing far better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. For that reason, almost all the action is in states that Trump won in 2016. The exceptions (NH, NV, and MN) are only remote possibilities for Trump to win; all are rated “lean Biden.” As a result, there are numerous paths to a Biden victory, but very few for Trump. Basically, to win, Trump has to carry ALL the states he is ahead in, all of the “tossup states” (IA OH MC GA FL) and 21 electoral votes in states that are currently “lean Biden” (PA NC GA FL AZ). That is a narrow path.
There are 38 states (including DC) where there is NO chance of an upset. When these states are called (most likely at poll closing), the networks will make a big deal out of calling these states. There will be huge graphics, bells and whistles. Ignore these theatrics. These will be tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
If you want to scorecard these, you can print this page and circle each of these as it is called as predicted. At the end of the night, you will have circled all these states. Count on it.
- 20 States Trump will win: AK MT ID WY UT ND SD NE (except NE2) KS OK MO AR LA MS AL TN KY IN WV SC
- 18 States Biden will win: HI WA OR CA CO NM IL VA NY MD DL DC NJ VT MA CT RI ME (except ME2)
There are only 13 states to pay any attention to at all:
- 1 Trump2016 state that Leans Trump: TX. Trump absolutely needs Texas. Lose it and game over. Though most analysts rate it a “Lean Trump” state, NBC recently moved TX from “lean R” to “tossup.” A Biden win would be a big surprise but could happen. And if that happens, go to bed, it is over.
- 5 Trump2016 states that are Tossups: FL GA NC OH IA +(ME2). Trump needs to carry all of these. FL GA NC are the best possibilities for Biden, and they would likely signal game over if he won any of them.
- 3 states won by Clinton2016 that are Lean Biden and unlikely to flip MN NH NV. Trump win in any of these would be a very good sign for him (but he’d still need others)
- 4 states carried by Trump2016 that Lean Biden AZ WI MI PA (+NE2).
Do you think the polls were “wrong” in 2016? The truth is more complicated. Want to hear the whole story? Click here. Thirty minutes well spent, I promise.
Important differences between 2020 and 2016
- Biden poll lead has been larger and far less volatile.
- Far fewer undecided voters.
- No sign of last-minute movement towards Trump
How does Biden win?
If Biden does not do any of these, Trump wins:
- 1. Upper Midwest: If Biden holds MN, and wins WI MI PA, it’s game over. This is the most likely scenario for a Biden win (he’s ahead in all these states). Unfortunately, we are not likely to find out about these early. Some of these states cannot count their early ballots until election day. This means that these states are likely to spend several days before announcing anything resembling a final count. PA is the best indicator of these since Biden’s lead is smaller in PA than the other three upper Midwest states, but it is likely to be the last to report final totals. It is also the national “tipping point” state. If I could only know the result in one state and wanted to call the election, that state would be PA.
- 2. Biden win in FL or TX would be game over.
- 3. Biden win in GA NC or OH would be almost as strong an indicator, they would probably signal a Biden win, but Trump would still have some slight path to victory.
- 4. A Biden win in IA or AZ would also be significant, but Biden would need one more state in this list to cinch it.
Most likely Trump path to victory
Trump has to carry his 20 base states, “Lean Trump” Texas, the five tossup states (FL GA NC OH IA) and ME2. He would still need 21 electoral votes from the “Lean Biden” group. (Arizona 11, WI 10, MI 16, PA 20, NE2 1). If he carries his base and all the tossup states, Trump could carry any two of these and win. But his most likely path would be PA and NE2 which would give him 269 electoral votes, creating an Electoral College tie. (Winning WI and AZ without NE2 would also create a 269 tie).
Trump wins a 269-269 tie
A tie in the Electoral College would move the selection to the House of Representatives which would cast one vote per state. Since Republicans will almost certainly control a majority of state delegations, they would elect Trump president. So, Trump effectively needs 269 electoral votes to win, Biden needs 270.
Bottom Line: While there is a very narrow path to a Trump EC win, a Biden route is more likely than a Trump squeaker.
When will we know who won?
Poll closing times (Arizona time) for the 13 states that will determine the winner:
- 5 p.m.: FL GA
- 5:30 p.m. NC OH
- 6 p.m. MI* NH* PA** TX(CST) ME2
- 7 p.m. AZ MN TX(MST) WI** NE2
- 8 p.m. IA* NV
*Has < one week to count “earlies.” **Can’t count “earlies” till election day.
Further analyses: See www.mikeoneil.org
Mike O’Neil is host of The Think Tank, which airs on KTAR News 92.3 FM at 3-4 p.m. Saturdays and 9-10 p.m. Sundays.
Tune to KTAR News 92.3 FM, online or our app on election night for coverage and analysis of the national, state and local results as they come in.